Prime Stage Revives Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”

I’m not sure if high schoolers read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter these days, or if they do, these woke teens would find extramarital sex as sinful as the Puritans. It’s telling that even Liam Macik, who adapted and directed Prime Stage’s current production of The Scarlet Letter, admitted in the program notes that he “barely cracked the spine” of the novel in high school.
With its stilted language, moralistic finger-wagging and Puritan stereotypes, Hawthorne’s 1850 work presents a challenge to contemporary interpreters and readers, a challenge that Macik took on despite his earlier disinterest.

The result is an earnest effort that tries, but stumbles, to re-imagine the story of Hester Prynne as a modern hero trapped among a hidebound culture ruled by rigid beliefs and the “iron men” of Puritan New England.

Hester is one of the great female characters of American literature, a tradition dominated by males, so she is extraordinary as a force of nature and beauty in a dull world of plainness and conformity.

She is tall with “a figure of perfect elegance,” with “dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam,” and “deep black eyes.”

Prime’s Hester is played by Allison Svagdis, small with pale complexion and light blond hair. Played as a resolute and determined character, she lacks the physical presence of Hawthorne’s Hester. Svagdis, like the other key players, is burdened by the complicated dialogue that is lifted directly from the novel without much editing.

Hawthorne probably never imagined that his version of Puritan-speak with its “thee” and “thou” would be performed, so there needs to be a transition from page to stage that is missing in this show.

The major male characters of Rev. Arthur Dimmsdale (Kyle DePasquale) and Roger Chillingworth (George Saulnier) also work hard to bring meaning and emotion to their difficult speeches, which occasionally caused the veteran Saulnier to search for the right words.

Chillingworth (Hawthorne wasn’t the subtlest when naming his characters) is a complicated creation, a scholar and kind man driven to villainy by revenge. Saulnier portrays this ambivalent fellow with relish.

DePasquale is another matter. Too youthful to play the miserable Dimmesdale dying of guilt, he doesn’t bring enough sense of experience to a minister beloved by his flock but full of hatred for himself. He acquits himself, though, in the touching reunion scene with Hester in the forest when a small ray of hope breaks through the dark woods.

The rest of the largely amateur cast is up to the task of Macik’s elaborate staging including a few crowd scenes resembling an Our Town production. As an adapter, he retained Hawthorne’s rejection of his Puritan ancestors by including the character of the author as the narrator (a solemn Everett Lowe).

Prime Stage’s production of The Scarlet Letter is highlighted by M.K. Hughes’ smartly designed set and Michael Pilyih’s moody lighting work. It’s an ambitious and serious staging that, while honoring Hawthorne’s best-known work, struggles to make the case of its relevance in these 21st-century times.

The Scarlet Letter by Prime Stage Theatre Co.  plays at The New Hazlett Theater through Nov. 10. For ticket information, visit Prime Stage’s homepage.


Bob Hoover retired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as its full-time book editor and drama editor in 2011 after 28 years with the newspaper. He continued to write part-time for the PG reviewing books, theater, and articles on literary, historical and local topics until 2014. Hoover has reviewed myriad entertainment productions from the circus to children’s theater in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Canada. As a book editor, he reviewed an average of 50 books a year, wrote regular columns on the local and national literary scene and organized and edited the newspaper’s weekly book section. He provided extensive coverage of Pittsburgh’s literary community as well as reporting on events, readings, and festivals around the country. Hoover was a theater journalism fellow at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California and the winner of state and local writing awards.

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